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PRINT Summer 2000

TOWERS OF LONDON: LOUISE BOURGEOIS

HOW VERY APPROPRIATE that the new Tate Modern, with its towering smokestack on the Thames, debuted in May with a work to match its equally towering ambitions. In the museum’s coldly vast Turbine Hall, all metal and brick with braced skylights above, sit three towers in raw steel by Louise Bourgeois and, on a bridge neatly crossing the 115-foot-high, 500-foot-long space, one of her signature spindly spiders (Maman, 1999), now sized up to compete with the clamorous hall.

Frances Morris, senior curator at Tate Modern, oversaw the immense, down-to-the-last-second creation of the works entitled I Do, I Undo, and I Redo, 1999–2000. The first in a five-year series of commissioned installations for the hall, Bourgeois’s effort went from five-foot-tall maquettes to roughly fifty-foot towers in sixteen months.

“I first proposed the idea of Louise doing something when her assistant Jerry Gorovoy came through in November of ’98 with Howard Read from her New York gallery,” Morris says. “Afterwards, I sent a video of the space, architectural plans and photos. Within weeks the first of the maquettes appeared. We committed. We were all quite excited, and we’d thought of a group of spiders leading the visitor to the towers, but Louise thought to do the single one, her biggest ever, instead.”

“Biggest ever” would seem to be the operative phrase. From the start, huge purpose—and commensurate means—drove the show. Translated from maquettes by a structural engineer, the looming towers were realized at the Modern Art Foundry, a metalworks long used by Bourgeois in Astoria, Queens. The giant mirrors in polished steel that top I Do and I Redo were made there as well. Seven forty-foot containers of parts were shipped across the Atlantic for assembly. When they arrived on April 3, less than six weeks before the opening, thirty workers employed in teams of ten per tower began their dash to erect the mammoth installation. The hall in those weeks was something out of the nineteenth century, Morris recalls, with great showering sparks of arc welds, gantries lifting colossal cylinders, men shouting, the stink of fire and hot metal in the air. To save time the spiral staircases, originally to be produced in the States, were assigned to Little Hampton Welding near London and brought in by truck. Forty-three tons of steel in all were rising in a race against the clock.

Then it was done. “Biggest ever” permeates the room, mixing Spielberg-scale spectacle with the psychological symbolism of the surreal. Here, installation art gears up to theme-park showmanship. Yet the theme, harking back to Bourgeois’s 1947 suite of engravings with text “He Disappeared into Complete Silence,” weds architectural forms to the cycle of nurture, rejection, and reconciliation experienced between mother and child. We crane our necks, staring up the inner shaft of I Undo, with its jolting red glass ovals—a psychedelic model of the birth canal. We wait in lines to climb to roller-coaster heights, becoming weak-kneed and vulnerable as we reach the top and find ourselves under those massive, terrifying mirrors—each of us a cruel, Francis Bacon–like portrait in a sky-high theater of clinical self-regard.

Such ruthlessness and pity mingle easily with tenderness. They’re caught like specimens under glass, just as the artist’s mother-and-child dyads are, secreted at the heart of each tower. Old battles are reimagined and resolved. Indeed, Bourgeois remarks that the works “reflect the optimistic view that I feel today”—a view seen through the long lens of her eighty-eight years, as if from a great height.

Steven Henry Madoff